Without our muscle, our driver, and lacking the shot-calling expertise that Devlin brought to the team, I found myself struggling to connect one thought with another. There were too many unknown variables that I was aware of, probably even more that I hadn’t yet considered, and my only ally’s motivation was still a mystery. If I made the wrong call, it wasn’t just possible that the kidnappers would get away with Devlin. They might draw the noose around me and Barrett as well, so they could spirit us away to whatever shadowy location they had in mind.
On the bright side, I wouldn’t have to worry about the Mouse discovering my identity when time ran out. I’d probably be dead, of course, but that was just incidental.
“I need them scared,” I said to Barrett, speaking the words before my better angels could convince me otherwise. “They’ve already got Devlin, so the job’s essentially already blown.”
“You sent him in there alone?”
“No,” I said, “but the person who was supposed to be watching his back is incapacitated.”
“Shouldn’t we save them, then? Three people would do a lot better than two, especially when one of them is pretty clearly uncomfortable around guns.”
I couldn’t really protest to that. I’d taken a gun, because it would have been idiotic to refuse the weapon, but my discomfort was readily apparent. Hitting someone with a stun gun was one thing. They’d eventually recover and my conscience could handle inflicting pain on certified Bad Guys. But taking a life?
A not insignificant portion of my life had been spent on the outskirts of polite society. As a matter of course, I broke the law on a regular basis. I’d associated with all manner of criminals, aided and abetted lawbreakers on several different continents; and presumably racked up an impressive number of crimes under my various false identities. Our careers put us closer to death than any civilian could imagine; that looming sense of potential fatalities had only grown sharper and more ominous since the Lady had come into our lives.
People were going to die. They already had, after all. Still, I couldn’t see myself directly or even indirectly killing someone. I knew that it was probably an unreasonable stance to take, all things considered, but I took it anyway.
“We don’t have the time,” I said out loud. “She’s tough. If they wanted her permanently out of the way, the kidnappers would have done it already. And, if they aren’t willing to go that far, then it’s only a matter of time before she gets out on her own.”
“You think she’ll give us some backup when she gets free, then?” Barrett asked.
I shrugged. “I think she’ll find her way to wherever we are. She’s got her own goals and, for the moment, those goals align with what I want.”
“I want the kidnappers stopped,” I said, “before they can get away with anyone. I want to keep this as quiet as possible because someone brought my family here. And I want to make it out of this without making my life any more complicated than it already is.”
Barrett gave me a fierce, tight grin. “I think that last bit’s a lost cause, personally, but those first two? I think we might be able to make that happen.”
An answering grin appeared on my face, propelled by the sickening flood of adrenaline in my system. With effort, I tamped down on the urge to rush ahead haphazardly. Barrett and I moved forward, determined but deliberate, through the back of the arts building. We encountered no other guards or kidnappers. Either Mila had miscounted or overestimated their numbers, or they were congregating in a manner designed to protect their escape route. I hoped for the former, even as I accepted the latter as far more likely.
When we were close to the loading bay – perhaps two or three rooms away – I held up a hand to stop Barrett from continuing.
“Max? Do any of these rooms have windows overlooking the exterior?”
“One second,” she said. Then, a moment later, “There’s a viewing room nearby that’s used when artists request natural light. Is that the kind of thing you mean?”
“That’ll have to do,” I said. I relayed that information to Barrett, who immediately began picking locks on the nearest doors in search of the viewing room. When he’d moved away far enough, I lowered my voice so that only Max would be able to hear me. “How are you still in contact with us? These earbuds have pretty limited range.”
“I moved closer,” Max said. “I figured everyone was focused on going deeper into the building, so…should I not have done that?”
It was definitely useful. My usual equipment had spoiled me over the years. I just took it for granted that, as long as my team members weren’t spelunking or standing inside of an MRI machine, they’d be able to hear my voice. The fact that Max had taken it upon herself to stay within transmission range was a boon even though, at the same time, it felt ill-advised for some reason I couldn’t quite put my finger on.
“Found it,” Barrett said. Might want to hurry up. It looks like they’re almost ready to get out of here.”
I put aside my thoughts about Max and the placement of the cart, then joined Barrett inside the viewing room, at a large four-panel window looking out over the back of the arts building. The exterior appeared to be a bog standard loading area, probably to unpack larger installations or to deliver props for the community theater. An oversized, windowless van was parked at the end of the dock, releasing a steady stream of thick smoke from its tailpipe. I counted four different men standing in formation around the van.
“No guns?” I asked Barrett.
He shook his head. “They have them,” he said. “You can tell by how they’re standing. But they must be concealed weapons. Which honestly makes sense.”
I would’ve realized that on my own, if my mind hadn’t been overclocking for so long. The kidnappers were willing to kill, but their leader wasn’t stupid. The snippet of conversation I’d listened in on told me that much. Silenced weapons in a crowded, noisy atmosphere like the State Park would be acceptable, given that they weren’t used when the general population would notice. But high powered, automatic weaponry? If someone decided to start peppering the area with rifle rounds, someone would notice and things would devolve rather quickly after that. There were too many guns among the fair goers for something like that to go well.
I could use that.
“Alright,” I said. “Here’s the plan. We need them to think that they’re blown. Their leader is too calm, too collected. If this situation gets unmanageable, he’s only got three options.”
“Kill the hostages,” Barrett said, “try to get away before too many bystanders get involved, or cut his losses and make a break for it.”
“Precisely. So, we need to restrict his choices, so that he does what we want him to do.”
“And how are we going to do that?”
I thought furiously about the dilemma and, while I was still drawing up plans and counter-plans in my head, the men around the van moved. They stood up straighter, drew closer to the van, and their eyes all turned to look in the same direction. I knew what that meant.
“Max,” I said, “tell me that you’re close enough for us to connect with Devlin’s line.”
“It won’t be clear,” Max said. “There’s too many walls between us and I can’t do anything to clean up the signal in the short-term.”
“Anything’s better than nothing.” I waited for the earbud to click twice before I spoke, mentally willing my words to reach Devlin’s ears. “Devlin, listen to me and don’t say anything. I’m in a position where I can see where they’re taking you. We’re going to try to cause a distraction, maybe give you a little bit of wiggle room. We need you to secure Akumi’s brother. If you can’t do that, at least find a way to let us know whether or not he’s even in the van. Do that and then get out. We’ll handle the rest.”
“We will?” Barrett asked. He stroked his chin idly for a few seconds. “I guess so, huh?”
I looked around the room for implements I could weaponize. The only items that seemed potentially useful were art supplies, probably left over from the last artist to use the viewing room. Palettes, an easel, an assortment of paint brushes…exactly the type of things one would expect to find in an arts center and, therefore, not the type of things I needed. Where was a good flash-bang when you needed one?
There simply wasn’t enough time for me to contrive anything too complicated. So, after a deep and steadying breath, I snatched up a can of paint, took two quick skipping steps, and hurled it through the window in front of us as hard as I could. I was worried momentarily that the projectile would rebound off of the glass, which would have been sufficiently embarassing to kill me outright. Instead, my aim was accurate and my throwing arm apparently just good enough; the paint can shattered the glass with a painful crashing sound.
Barrett immediately ducked out of sight, bringing his handgun up to the side of his head as he did so. “Are you crazy?” He hissed.
“Probably,” I said. Then I looked around for another paint can to send flying through the now-broken window.
It turned out that I didn’t need to worry about that. My first throw had been sufficiently attention-grabbing all on its own. I couldn’t see the kidnappers, but I heard their voices cry out in alarm, disbelief, and finally anger. Anger was good. Angry people didn’t generally make good decisions.
Of course, pissing off a group of armed kidnappers who’d already proven themselves capable of murder was also not a good decision, but such was life, these days.
“They can’t risk firing on us anymore than we can,” I said to Barrett. I kept hold of the paint can. “Any police attention is going to blow this thing for them. So they’re going to keep everything strictly close quarters. And they can’t afford to leavea ny witnesses behind.”
“You just made us their target?” Barrett asked incredulously.
Someone nearly kicked the door into the room off of its hinges, giving Barrett his answer in a more succint fashion than I could possibly have managed. It was a heavyset man with a shaggy, wolf-like beard and peculiar scar over one eye. He held a silenced handgun, like the ones that Barrett and I had stolen earlier, in one hand; in the other, presumably to deal with work where silence was paramount, the man held a six or seven inch long serrated knife in a reverse grip.
The shaggy kidnapper’s eyes fixed immediately on Barrett. As he lowered his head and began to charge the cat burglar, Barrett returned the favor by calmly raising his weapon and aiming down the sights.
I circumvented both of them when I swung the paint can, still dangling in my grip, up in a wide arc that terminated at the shaggy man’s collarbone. The angle would’ve been impossible from my position, if my target hadn’t graciously hunched over and presented himself for maiming. Panic, adrenaline, and desperation all coalesced into a single instant, right down to the very point of impact between the can’s hard metal rim and the shaggy man’s exposed neck.
He went down – crumpled, really – and he stayed down.
“You’re kind of handy to have around, aren’t you?’ Barrett asked. There was a wild, untamed smile on his face and I knew that I wore a similar one. I couldn’t help it. “Handy for me, at least. Not so much for the people you end up tangling with.”
I tried to put Barrett out of my mind, focusing on whoever might come through the door next. The paint can had been the only thing I could use non-lethally and I still wasn’t sure if I’d actually be able to use a gun, should the situation call for that. I hoped that it wouldn’t but, at the same time, I’d hoped we wouldn’t find ourselves under the gun like we were. My hopes weren’t worth much, it seemed.
A banshee-like scream of pure rage and raw emotion reached us through the shattered window panes. Barrett beat me to the window, by virtue of his longer legs, and looked out on the kidnappers. His jaw dropped slightly open.
“Holy shit,” he said, awed and stunned.
“What is it?” I asked, even as I crossed the room to join him. When I was in a position to see, my own mouth fell open.
Whatever means they’d used to restrain Akumi hadn’t worked for long enough.
She had at least one gun on her person that I knew about, although there were probably several more that she hadn’t revealed. In the moment, she eschewed the use of those weapons in favor of her bare hands and feet. Two of the kidnappers already lay prone on the ground, moving just enough to reveal that they were alive. As I watched, Akumi went low to throw off the aim of the nearest kidnapper, snapped out a kick that ended right where the man’s knee began. The kidnapper’s leg bent painfully at a distinctly wrong angle and, as he dropped his weapon in shock and pain, she hit him again with a brutal spinning backfist that caught him just beneath the ear.
Already three kidnappers down, and I hadn’t even seen how Akumi defeated the first two. In her professional capacity, Mila had taken down more than a few of our opposition; I’d even been in a position to see her go to work on occasion. Mila was both effective and efficient, despite the obvious glee she felt when she was able to hurt people who deserved it. I thought that, in her, I’d seen the full extent of what a person trained to inflict pain was capable of.
Not so. Akumi was in a class, all by herself.
The fourth kidnapper hesitated for a single critical instant, unsure if he should use his gun on Akumi, meet her martial arts with his own skills, or retreat from the scene entirely. She took the choice away from him when she sprung at him like a human javelin. He was heavier by at least fifty pounds, and he had a good six or seven inches on her, but simple mass was no match for technique and fury.
She hit him once in the solar plexus with a sharp, precise punch; then, when he was doubled over and gasping for breath, Akumi brought up her knee higher than I would’ve thought possible and struck him in the temple. The kidnapper, dazed and discombobulated, staggered away from her, trying in vain to get his hands up to defend himself. Akumi, surprisingly, actually allowed him to finish getting into a defensive stance. Then, with a contemptuous ease, she broke his guard, grabbed his wrist, and spun in a way that broke the kidnapper’s arm in more places than I cared to count.
The leader of the kidnappers didn’t waste the critical second that the fourth man had. Quickly assessing the battlefield, he did the math and made the only choice he could have, under the circumstances. He abandoned Devlin where they stood, practically dashed past Akumi, staying far out of her attack range, and leaped into the back of the waiting van. I couldn’t see through the van’s exterior but, after just a moment, a body tumbled back out into view. It took me a moment to recognize Kira’s features.
In her berserk state, Akumi didn’t even seem to realize that the lead kidnapper had released her brother. She stalked over to the van, looking like nothing so much as an avatar of pain, clearly focused on breaking down the remaining kidnappers into their constituent pieces. The van and its occupants, however, had no intentions of giving her a chance. As soon as Kira was free, they stepped on the gas and the van’s wheels spat assorted bits of gravel and dirt in her direction. She covered her face against the onslaught and, when she was able to see to again, the kidnappers were too far away for her to chase.
Then, and only then, did she stop her onslaught and breathe. As she exhaled, the coiled tension in her body seemed to…not quite lessen, so much as subside. Calmly, as though the evidence of her rampage wasn’t groaning and moaning all around her, she knelt to examine her brother. Finding nothing out of place, she untied him and walked over to where Devlin was still restrained.
“Did you know she could do that?” Barrett asked.
I shook my head, temporarily incapable of speech.
“I guess…I guess this counts as a win, then? It’s what you wanted, isn’t it?”
There were several members of the lead kidnapper’s organization incapacitated throughout the building. Even allowing for the possibility that most of the ones inside had retreated or been helped to retreat, there were still the four men who’d been positioned to protect the van. We could potentially get information out of them, assuming that they knew everything. After suffering Akumi’s wrath, the odds that they’d want to risk withstanding her focused attention were practically zero. On top of that, we’d successfully freed Kira and kept Devlin from joining him in captivity. So, by all accounts, it seemed to be a win.
But why, then, didn’t it feel like one?